The two most important words in U2’s classic 1991 tune “One” won’t tell you exactly what the song is about. Lead singer Bono infused the lyrics with elements from different stories—one of which may have been the band’s own interpersonal drama—and the song features a built-in ambiguity that makes it feel tailor-made for charity concerts, solemn memorial tributes, award shows, and even weddings, though the members of U2 might quibble with that last one.
But the two words in question do point the way toward what U2’s signature ballad—a song they continue to play on every tour, including their recently launched residency at the state-of-the-art Sphere in Las Vegas—is trying to say. On the second and fourth choruses, Bono sings, “We get to carry each other,” not “We’ve got to carry each other,” as some people mishear. Bono isn’t urging—he’s making a statement: Human beings have no choice but to help each other, despite the intractable differences that keep us apart.
“It’s not: ‘Come on everybody, let’s vault over the wall,’” Bono says in the book U2 by U2. “Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There’s something very unromantic about that.”
Yet it’s possible to glean some kind of hope and comfort from “One,” a stripped-down outlier on 1991’s Achtung Baby, the album in which U2 otherwise ditches the earnestness of their ’80s material and embraces sex, irony, and dance grooves, reinventing themselves for the new decade. “One” is, in some ways, an intensely personal song that also tries to sum up the human condition in less than five minutes. It’s ambitious, gorgeous, and more than a little mysterious, even after you learn the story behind its creation.
At the dawn of the ’90s, U2 needed a change. With their 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree, they’d completed their metamorphosis from Dublin post-punk strivers to global stadium wreckers. The following year, they released Rattle and Hum, an album inspired by American roots music that arrived with its own documentary. The project drew heavy criticism, as some accused U2 of being pompous and self-important. Jon Pareles of The New York Times called the album “a mess.”
U2’s answer to the vexing question of where to go next was Berlin, a city undergoing its own kind of transition. Lead singer Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. touched down in Germany’s capital on October 3, 1990, the day marking the nation’s official reunification after 41 years of Cold War division. The Berlin Wall had fallen less than a year earlier, and despite the celebratory atmosphere, U2 were coming apart at the seams.
“We were building our own wall right down the middle of Hansa studios,” Bono told the BBC, referring to the legendary recording facility where David Bowie made his “Berlin Trilogy” albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Even with the help of producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, U2 found it difficult to capture the same magic of their storied workspace. Bono and The Edge wanted to experiment with drum machines and club beats, and this made the band’s rhythm section, Clayton and Mullen, feel like odd men out. “We had a breakdown in trust at Hansa, and it started to become wearing,” Bono writes in his 2022 memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. “Achtung Baby had a difficult birth. We almost lost her.”
“One, But Not the Same”
While trying to come up with a middle-eight section for “Sick Puppy,” a song that would eventually become the Achtung Baby single “Mysterious Ways,” The Edge hit upon a couple of chord patterns that fit together to make an entirely new song. Everyone knew this piece of music had the makings of something special. Now the song needed a concept and some lyrics.
At some point before U2 went to Berlin, the group received an invitation from the Dalai Lama to play something called The Festival of Oneness. Bono declined and signed his letter, “respectfully yours, Bono,” with a postscript that read, “One, but not the same.”
In his memoir, Bono explains that he’s “suspicious of the idea of oneness.” “I don’t buy into the homogeneity of the human experience,” he writes. “I don’t think we’re all one. We can be one, but I don’t think we have to see things the same way for that to be so. An anarchic thought: We’re one, but we’re not the same.”
From that notion came the song’s chorus and underlying theme. To flesh out the verses, Bono imagined a gay son coming out to his religious father and a woman facing her husband after taking a lover outside of their sexless marriage. But he gives you none of these specifics in the song itself. “You’re overhearing conversations, and you draw your own conclusion,” Bono writes in Surrender.
Before Bono described these characters in his memoir, fans theorized the song is about the dissolution of The Edge’s marriage to his high school sweetheart, the reunification of Germany, and U2’s own near-breakup. To some extent, all of these interpretations are also correct.
“Yeah, there’s elements of all of them because they share certain fundamental things,” The Edge told the BBC. “One of the themes is to see and be seen: to recognize a person you’re really not connecting with and don’t fully understand.”
In The Edge’s view, “One” is putting forth two ideas at the same time. Lines like, “Will it make it easier on you / Now you got someone to blame?” and “We hurt each other / And we do it again” signify a “bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who’ve been through some nasty, heavy stuff,” as The Edge said in the book U2 by U2. But that line “we get to carry each other”—again, not we’ve got to—nudges things in a slightly more tender direction.
“‘Get to’ suggests it is our privilege to carry one another,” The Edge said. “It puts everything in perspective and introduces the idea of grace.”
Still, both The Edge and Bono marvel at those who play “One” at their weddings. “I tell them, ‘Are you mad?’” Bono said in U2 by U2. “It’s about splitting up!’”
Saved By a Song
With “One” under their belts, U2 were able to regroup in Ireland following the tense Berlin sessions and salvage Achtung Baby, an album many critics rank as the group’s finest. “A key component to greatness is that the work has to answer a deep personal desire to make it,” Bono writes in Surrender. “The song you are writing and recording has to be, above all other criteria, a song that you want to hear yourself. ‘One’ was such a song. We wrote it because we needed to hear it.”
Although it was the track that spurred the rest of the album, “One” wasn’t completed until the very last day in the studio, when The Edge came in with a lead guitar idea. “There was a collective groan in the room,” he told the BBC. “I said, ‘Look, here’s the deal. One take, I promise.’ And I did. I played it in one take and they mixed it right away. It’s the final part that takes the song home.”
Achtung Baby debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and “One,” the LP’s third single, topped Billboard’s Alternative Airplay and Mainstream Rock Airplay charts. Proceeds from the sales of “One” went to AIDS charities, and the single’s cover art—a photo of buffalo going over a cliff—was created by artist David Wojnarowicz, who died from complications due to AIDS in July 1992, just months after the single was released. The liner notes state that Wojnarowicz “identifies himself and ourselves with the buffalo, pushed into the unknown by forces we cannot control or even understand.”
“One” wound up yielding three music videos. The first, shot by longtime U2 collaborator Anton Corbjin, features Bono and company in drag. That version was pulled after the band members began to worry that since “One” benefited AIDS charities, people would think they were linking the disease to the gay community, which was not their intention. So U2 commissioned a second version, directed by Mark Pellington, that comprises slow-motion shots of running buffalo interspersed with shots of sunflowers and the word “one” in different languages. The third variation centers on Bono, who lip-syncs from a table in a nightclub.
“One”: Never Done
Since its initial release, “One” has never really left the public consciousness. In January 1993, Clayton and Mullen joined Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M. to perform “One” at MTV’s inaugural party for Bill Clinton. The supergroup was dubbed Automatic Baby, a reference to Achtung Baby and R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. Two years later, English soul singer Mica Paris took her trip-hoppy version of “One” to No. 29 on the UK charts.
U2 has since played “One” at numerous benefit concerts, including 1995’s Pavarotti & Friends for the Children of Bosnia, 1997’s Tibetan Freedom Concert, 2003’s 46664 Concert for Nelson Mandela, and 2005’s Live 8 and Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast. The last of those performances included a guest spot from Mary J. Blige, who released her own version of “One,” featuring U2, in 1996. It was only a minor hit in America, but it reached No. 2 in the UK.
The long list of artists who’ve covered “One” also includes Johnny Cash, Cowboy Junkies, and the cast of TV’s Glee, who scored a minor hit with their 2010 rendition. Along with these remakes, “One” has earned numerous accolades. In a 2003 Q magazine issue ranking the 1001 best songs of all time, “One” came in first. In 2013, VH1 declared it the second-best song of the ’90s, right after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Rolling Stone placed “One” at No. 62 on the most recent version of its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. (It was No. 36 on the original list, compiled in 2004.)
In 2023, U2 included a new version of “One” on Songs of Surrender, an album featuring pared-down re-recordings of 40 songs from throughout their discography. “One” makes for a massive singalong at the Sphere in Las Vegas, scene of the U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere residency that’s slated to run through February 2024. U2 didn’t write the song with cynical hopes of longevity in mind, but as long as human beings struggle to coexist on micro and macro levels—hurt each other and do it again—“One” is bound to resonate with audiences.